Justification in the Early Church – 09 – Hippolytus of Rome

200 Early Church pic

Welcome to this series of posts giving a survey of what the early church fathers have written about justification and works of law with reference to Paul. Click this link to go to the first post with the contents of the whole.

In today’s post we look at Hippolytus of Rome (c.e. 170–235) was the most important 3rd-century theologian in the Christian Church in Rome, where he was probably born. He was a champion of the Logos doctrine that distinguished the persons of the Trinity. He conceived of God as a unit who, while indivisible, was plural.

Hippolytus was a leader of the Roman church during the pontificate (c. 199–217) of St. Zephyrinus, whom he attacked as being a modalist (one who conceives that the entire Trinity dwells in Christ and who maintains that the names Father and Son are only different designations for the same subject).

He came into conflict with the popes of his time and seems to have headed a schismatic group as a rival Bishop of Rome. For that reason he is sometimes considered the first antipope. He opposed the Roman bishops who softened the penitential system to accommodate the large number of new pagan converts. However, he was very probably reconciled to the Church when he died as a martyr. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hippolytus_of_Rome


He didn’t write much concerning justification. He does give us some interesting information regarding the Jews, their sects and beliefs.

200 Early Church Fathers - Apostles

Sects of the Jews

Originally there prevailed but one usage among the Jews; for one teacher was given unto them by God, namely Moses, and one law by this same Moses. And there was one desert region and one Mount Sinai, for one God it was who legislated for these Jews.

But, again, after they had crossed the river Jordan, and had inherited by lot the conquered country, they in various ways rent in sunder the law of God, each devising a different interpretation of the declarations made by God.

And in this way they raised up for themselves teachers, (and) invented doctrines of an heretical nature, and they continued to advance into (sectarian) divisions.

Now it is the diversity of these Jews that I at present propose to explain. But though for even a considerable time they have been rent into very numerous sects, yet I intend to elucidate the more principal of them, while those who are of a studious turn will easily become acquainted with the rest. For there is a division amongst them into three sorts; and the adherents of the first are the Pharisees, but of the second the Sadducees, while the rest are Essenes.

(Hippolytus of Rome. (1886). The Refutation of All Heresies. In A. Roberts, J. Donaldson, & A. C. Coxe (Eds.), J. H. MacMahon (Trans.), The Ante-Nicene Fathers: Fathers of the Third Century: Hippolytus, Cyprian, Novatian, Appendix (Vol. 5, p. 134). Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company.)

Hippolytus introduces his discussion of the various sects of the Jews. After this point he will go into a long winded discussion of the Essenes.


If we skip ahead a bit he gives a description of the Pharisees.

But there are also others who themselves practise the Jewish customs; and these, both in respect of caste and in respect of the laws, are called Pharisees.

Now the greatest part of these is to be found in every locality, inasmuch as, though all are styled Jews, yet, on account of the peculiarity of the opinions advanced by them, they have been denominated by titles proper to each.

These, then, firmly hold the ancient tradition, and continue to pursue in a disputative spirit a close investigation into the things regarded according to the Law as clean and not clean.

And they interpret the regulations of the Law, and put forward teachers, whom they qualify for giving instruction in such things.

These Pharisees affirm the existence of fate, and that some things are in our power, whereas others are under the control of destiny. In this way they maintain that some actions depend upon ourselves, whereas others upon fate.

But (they assert) that God is a cause of all things, and that nothing is managed or happens without His will. These likewise acknowledge that there is a resurrection of flesh, and that soul is immortal, and that there will be a judgment and conflagration, and that the RIGHTEOUS will be imperishable, but that the wicked will endure everlasting punishment in unqenchable fire. These, then, are the opinions even of the Pharisees. (p137, ibid)

His description sounds a lot like Paul.


The Sadducees, however, are for abolishing fate, and they acknowledge that God does nothing that is wicked, nor exercises providence over (earthly concerns); but they contend that the choice between good and evil lies within the power of men.

And they deny that there is a resurrection not only of flesh, but also they suppose that the soul does not continue after death. The soul they consider nothing but mere vitality, and that it is on account of this that man has been created. However, (they maintain) that the notion of the resurrection has been fully realized by the single circumstance, that we close our days after having left children upon earth. But (they still insist) that after death one expects to suffer nothing, either bad or good; for that there will be a dissolution both of soul and body, and that man passes into non-existence, similarly also with the material of the animal creation. (p137, ibid)

The description of their rejection of resurrection fits with what we see in the New Testament.

The Jewish Religion

Since, therefore, we have explained even the diversities among the Jews, it seems expedient likewise not to pass over in silence the system of their religion.

The doctrine, therefore, among all Jews on the subject of religion is fourfold—theological, natural, moral, and ceremonial.

And they affirm that there is one God, and that He is Creator and Lord of the universe: that He has formed all these glorious works which had no previous existence; and this, too, not out of any coeval substance that lay ready at hand, but His Will—the efficient cause—was to create, and He did create.

And (they maintain) that there are angels, and that these have been brought into being for ministering unto the creation; but also that there is a sovereign Spirit that always continues beside God, for glory and praise.

And that all things in the creation are endued with sensation, and that there is nothing inanimate. And they earnestly aim at serious habits and a temperate life, as one may ascertain from their laws. Now these matters have long ago been strictly defined by those who in ancient times have received the divinely-appointed law; so that the reader will find himself astonished at the amount of temperance, and of diligence, lavished on customs legally enacted in reference to man. (p138, ibid)

The fourfold way of describing Judaism is interesting. Especially the reference to the ceremonial aspects.

The ceremonial service

The ceremonial service, however, which has been adapted to divine worship in a manner befitting the dignity of religion, has been practised amongst them with the highest degree of elaboration. The superiority of their ritualism it is easy for those who wish it to ascertain, provided they read the book which furnishes information on these points.

They will thus perceive how that with solemnity and sanctity the Jewish priests offer unto God the first-fruits of the gifts bestowed by Him for the use and enjoyment of men; how they fulfil their ministrations with regularity and steadfastness, in obedience to His commandments.

There are, however, some (liturgical usages adopted) by these, which the Sadducees refuse to recognise, for they are not disposed to acquiesce in the existence of angels or spirits. (p138, ibid)

The ceremonial service is no doubt what the early church associates with the works of law.

Jews still waiting for the Messiah

Still all parties alike expect Messiah, inasmuch as the Law certainly, and the prophets, preached beforehand that He was about to be present on earth.

Inasmuch, however, as the Jews were not cognizant of the period of His advent, there remains the supposition that the declarations (of Scripture) concerning His coming have not been fulfilled. And so it is, that up to this day they continue in anticipation of the future coming of the Christ,—from the fact of their not discerning Him when He was present in the world.

And (yet there can be little doubt but) that, on beholding the signs of the times of His having been already amongst us, the Jews are troubled; and that they are ashamed to confess that He has come, since they have with their own hands put Him to death, because they were stung with indignation in being convicted by Himself of not having obeyed the laws.

And they affirm that He who was thus sent forth by God is not this Christ (whom they are looking for); but they confess that another Messiah will come, who as yet has no existence; and that he will usher in some of the signs which the law and the prophets have shown beforehand, whereas, regarding the rest (of these indications), they suppose that they have fallen into error.

For they say that his generation will be from the stock of David, but not from a virgin and the Holy Spirit, but from a woman and a man, according as it is a rule for all to be procreated from seed.

And they allege that this Messiah will be King over them,—a warlike and powerful individual, who, after having gathered together the entire people of the Jews, and having done battle with all the nations, will restore for them Jerusalem the royal city.

And into this city He will collect together the entire Hebrew race, and bring it back once more into the ancient customs, that it may fulfil the regal and sacerdotal functions, and dwell in confidence for periods of time of sufficient duration.

After this repose, it is their opinion that war would next be waged against them after being thus congregated; that in this conflict Christ would fall by the edge of the sword; and

that, after no long time, would next succeed the termination and conflagration of the universe; and

that in this way their opinions concerning the resurrection would receive completion, and a recompense be rendered to each man according to his works.

(Hippolytus of Rome. (1886). The Refutation of All Heresies. In A. Roberts, J. Donaldson, & A. C. Coxe (Eds.), J. H. MacMahon (Trans.), The Ante-Nicene Fathers: Fathers of the Third Century: Hippolytus, Cyprian, Novatian, Appendix (Vol. 5, p. 138). Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company.)

The primary difference between Jews and Christians is that the Jews do not believe Jesus is the Christ or that the Christ has come (‘the period of His advent’). The reason why they struggle to believe is that they were the ones who put him to death. Hence there would be a certain amount of shame in admitting they were so stubborn and wicked. They have a different expectation of what the messiah will be like when he comes (‘warlike and powerful’). He will gather all his people together in Jerusalem. Surprisingly he will be killed by the sword. However he might be raised from the dead and render judgement according to each person’s works.

I haven’t quoted anything from Hippy about justification. However what he does say here does provide a little historical context to the Jews who lived with the early christians.

In the next post we look at Origen (c.e. 185-254). Origen was a scholar and early Christian theologian who was born and spent the first half of his career in Alexandria. He was a prolific writer in multiple branches of theology, including textual criticism, biblical exegesis and hermeneutics, philosophical theology, preaching, and spirituality written in Greek. He wrote several statements concerning justification including the first commentary on Romans.

Copyright © Joshua Washington and thescripturesays, 2015. All Rights Reserved.


  • JJWeeks

    I like the graph of the early church fathers and who studied under who. Do you know where I can find a more complete graph like that, with references to where that info is from? I’ve been looking everywhere, and am so desperate I am considering attempting to compile my own list for others use (but have a ton of reading to do!)

    • I can’t remember. I’ve had it awhile. I think I got it from a Google search as well more than five years ago. If I find it I’ll reference it better.